Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Bangladesh’s Holy Muggers

Published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXIV No. 3, June 2004

The female mugger croc was so fat that she couldn't even turn around to bite Rom (Romulus Whitaker) as he tried to budge her from her nest. Her neck was thicker than her head, and a noose thrown around her neck would have slipped right off. She had laid eggs during March on the bank of the lake and she was doing her best to dissuade Rom from checking on them. Anyone not well acquainted with crocs would have been sent running by her growls and spirited lunges. With the entire village watching him, Rom was huffing and puffing and completely soaking in sweat. He was exhausted, he told me later, and it felt like moving a water buffalo. Finally when we all thought Rom could go on no more, the croc gave up and slipped into the water. But we kept an eye on her anyway so the good mother that she is, she couldn't launch a surprise defense.

Probing with his fingers, Rom located the nest with practiced ease. The trick is to check for loose earth in an otherwise well-packed area. Seven of the 21 eggs were rotten, and a foul smell rent the air when they were broken open. There was no sign of embryo development in any of the rotten eggs. And she was the last mugger croc laying eggs in all of Bangladesh.

In 1970 there were eight big mugger crocs and 30 babies in this very lake. In 1982, the number had fallen to five adults, no babies. And in 2003 there were only two crocs and no babies. The mugger has been listed as extinct in Bangladesh by the IUCN Red Data Book.

The Last Survivors

It was May and we were in Bangladesh. Floris Deodatus, a colleague working for the Sunderbans Biodiversity Project funded by the Asian Development Bank was charged with looking at Bangladesh's saltwater crocodiles (affectionately called “salties”). During the course of drawing up an action plan he became aware of the dismal situation of the country’s mugger crocs. He could trace only four muggers in all of Bangladesh – two in different zoos and two in a lake adjacent to a Muslim shrine called Khan Jahan Ali Mazar. The female croc at the Mazar had been known to lay eggs every year, but no hatchlings had emerged for several years. There were various theories to explain this. An organization called Winrock International in Bangladesh and the IUCN/SSC/Crocodile Specialist Group arranged for us to visit the location to see what Rom had to suggest.

The history

In the 1400s a Turkish general, Khan Jahan Ali arrived in Bagerhat, (south of the port city of Khulna), with his followers and settled down to a life of spiritual Sufi calm and contemplation. He excavated a huge lake estimated at about 6 ha. in extent and introduced two mugger crocs. He named them Khalapahar (black mountain) and Dhalapahar (white mountain). When he died, his mausoleum became a shrine. The affairs of the shrine are taken care of by the 300 descendents of Khan Jahan Ali’s retinue, called kadem, who live around the lake. The two crocs living in the lake are believed to be the descendents of Dhalapahar and Khalapahar and are also called by the same names. Hundreds of pilgrims visit the shrine each day and show their reverence by feeding the crocs pieces of meat and whole chickens. Being reptiles, their metabolism doesn't require such daily feedings and they were both obese. The male in fact was as tame as a puppy, coming whenever summoned for feeding by the kadem. Understandably, the kadem were in a panic that their crocs were impotent. All of the shrine’s income came from pilgrims wanting to see the crocs. Since voicing such concern might create adverse publicity, the kadem were on their guard with us initially. They didn't think there was any problem, they didn't want any help, and they didn't want any interference. It was through a local NGO called Rupantar, and its ebullient director Rafique ul Islam, that we managed to get through to the kadem at all.

The Present

Rom and Nirmol (a forest department employee assisting us) marked the top of each egg. Croc eggs can’t be turned over or the embryo will rip from its moorings and die. After retrieving the eggs we needed to check if they were fertile or not. One of the more liberal kadem, the long bearded Fakir Sher Ali led us to a hut close by. Under Rom’s supervision, he drilled a hole through the bottom of an earthen pot. Next we needed a bare electric bulb. The fakir got one and Rom retreated into the dark hut, which was soon jammed full with masses of perspiring bodies watching what was happening to their beloved Dhalapahar's eggs. Rom thrust the bulb into the pot and turning it around, had a thin sharp beam of light. He held each egg so it was backlit by the beam. The egg was translucent, no sign of blood vessels, or any sign of an opaque blob at the top that would be an embryo. Every single egg was infertile!

Rapid fire Bengali shot back and forth as people spilt out of the hut. One of the kadem said that the eggs must be returned to the nest. Rom explained that it wouldn't make any difference, as the eggs were infertile. One of them retorted that Khan Jahan Ali would ensure that embryos developed in the eggs later! This was going to be tough…

Struggles with religion

The crocs’ infertility could be due to one, or all, of several things: age of pair, incompatibility between the two, or obesity affecting the reproductive health of both. The course of action we discussed with the kadem was, first, that the other two crocs residing in zoos that were taken from Bagerhat would have to be returned. Second, although it would have been great to conserve the uniquely Bangladesh bloodline, it was too much of a long shot to do that with just four crocs. To prevent the total extinction of the mugger in Bangladesh, Rom suggested bringing 50 fertile eggs from the Madras Crocodile Bank and replacing Dhalapahar’s infertile eggs with them. She was a good protective mother who would guard the eggs and the babies after they hatch. There was good habitat - lots of reeds and vegetation - where the babies could cryptically hang out in a crèche. The insects that frequented the reeds would form their main diet.

But the kadem didn't think the Madrasi crocs were holy enough. We tried to convince them that they are the same crocs on the subcontinent for millions of years and that some of the holiness of the lake’s waters would rub off on the heathen crocs, but the kadem said they would much prefer artificial insemination to importing crocs from Madras. Then came word that one of the crocs believed till then to be at the Mirpur Zoo in Dhaka was dead. That left only the croc at the Khulna Zoo. A quick trip there confirmed that it was a female. So it was left to the Forest Department to negotiate the croc’s release to the Khan Jahan Ali Mazar lake.

An interloper

The next day, on a walk around the lake after dark, we heard the unmistakable sound of a croc splashing into the water. But it couldn’t be either Dhalapahar or Khalapahar... Rom got into the water and waded across in the direction of the sound. Pinned under a strong beam of light was a young saltwater crocodile! The panicky kadem had bought the saltie from a fisherman and released it into the lake! We went back to the kadem and argued that if they were agreeable to introducing a totally different species of croc, what was their objection to the ‘Madrasi’ muggers. Rom then pulled out his trump card – a black and white picture taken in 1941 of Mugger Pir in Karachi (see box, print 13). The kadem looked at the lake teeming with mugger crocs and their eyes glistened. Lots of humming and hawing later, they were finally ready to listen and cooperate. But first we asked them to remove the saltie from the lake as it would ruin any mugger-breeding program. The saltie would not only eat up the baby mugger but could become a nuisance to livestock and locals.

The Big Plan

Back in Dhaka, at the request of an enthused Forest Department, a pro-active action plan was drawn up that involved sending over 20 mugger crocs from Madras to stock the Forest Department’s croc breeding facility in Karamjal and another 20 to the huge new enclosure at Mirpur Zoo, Dhaka. The paperwork is being processed by the Indian Government and we hope the necessary permission will be given soon. In the meantime, we are raising funds to move the crocs to Dhaka. Alitalia has agreed to cut freight rates but the Bangladeshis still need to raise four and half lakh rupees. So far there are no other sponsors. Anybody willing to chip in to bring the muggers back to Bangladesh?

Epilogue - the crocs were shipped earlier this year and hopefully croc conservation in Bangladesh is in full swing.

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